Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Short Books

Yesterday the subject of Edward Burne-Jones came up - this was in that strange world beyond the blogosphere where people talk etc - and I recommended to a friend the book Visionary And Dreamer by Lord David Cecil. For those who don't know it, this is a pair of elegant, discerning biographical essays which compare and contrast Burne-Jones (dreamer) and Samuel Palmer (visionary). It makes its point and tells ou all you need to know within the compass of one pleasingly silm volume. He performs a similar trick (though not comparing and contrasting) with Dorothy Osborne and Thomas Gray in Two Quiet Lives. This is a model of biography that seems now to belong to the past, as biographers - too many of whom are academics (as was Cecil, of course, though in a sense unknown to modern Academe) - revert to the Victorian shove-it-all-in model, resulting in huge, often all but unreadable, tomes which might give you all the facts, but precious little insight. Cecil's selective and sympathetic biography of Max Beerbohm is a vastly more rewarding read, and tells you much more about the man, than more ambitious modern efforts, e.g. N. John Hall's compendious Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life.
Why are books so big these days? It's not just biographies (I'm currently reading one of Captain B's fat histories, a daunting prospect even in paperback (perfect bound of course, so the spine snaps at the points where the plates and bunched) - excellent book though, needless to say). Most contemporary novels too could be cut by a third and more with no loss. Hearing some of these read on Radio 4, they often still seem overlong - and they've already been cut by 80 percent. This literary gigantism seems quite counterintuitive - if these books are actually intended to be read (and in some cases I have my doubts). Who, beyond the small world of dedicated readers, has the time for these baggy monsters? Isn't modern life notoriously fast and full of distractions (e.g. the blogosphere)? We want short books - well I do - and make them small too. With a necessarily long book, why not publish in two volumes? As Cecil did with his best known work, his great biography of Lord Melbourne...


  1. Everything's too big nowadays - stop sniggering at the back there boy. And quit your childish "as the actress said to the bishop" malarkeys. The average film is at least 30mins too long: Casablanca manages to get the whole thing done and dusted in 80mins.

    In my line of work, most of my peers seem to think they're paid by the word and not the quality of their ideas/suggestions.

    Time for everything to slim down, methinks. And not take itself so bloody seriously.

  2. Fear of leaving something out?
    Fear of not mentioning something and have someone else come along and say it afterwards?
    Fear of being thought obscure and fear of the little pearls being swallowed, unnoticed, along with the oysters?
    I've never written, I only read, so I'm only guessing but glad to hear you have the same problem. I always take a pair of callipers with me into Waterstone's...

  3. Until the clamour of back-slapping and mutual masturbation promotion on The Blogger Humbled has died down somewhat, I am eager to address myself to what I consider an extremely valid complaint, Nige.

    Truth to tell, your own testimony enhances my abomination, if that were possible of excessively voluminous biographies. None of them, in my own experience, manages to mount a serious challenge to the essential truth that brevity is of the essence. Books that run to 250,000 words are at best repetitious, discursive and convoluted, and at worst unreadable.

    A biography of Joseph Conrad in particular caught my ire.

    Mercifully I’ve forgotten the name of the author. But what I did find - and every one of its four volumes is evidence for this - was that thoroughly morbid, absolutely pathological meticulousness with which a literary geek continually bares his breast and digs out hitherto unpublished particulars. While it told you everything about the great stylist’s digestive processes, bloodgroup, dental chart, tissue pigmentation, venereal afflictions, psychological aberrations and genealogical derivations, it told you nothing about the man. Fact is, Conrad would no longer even exist as a as a human being whose behaviour was motivated by specific personality traits, but as a biographical abstraction, a cryptograph, or an analytical chart, had it not been for the half a dozen biographies I had imbibed previously, including the excellent Jocelyn Baines‘ Critical Biography.

    I was out of love!


  4. The Welsh JacobiteApril 02, 2008 12:27 pm

    μεγά βιβλίον μεγά κακόν as Callimachus wisely observed.

  5. Oh dear Nige, it shouldn't do that. Did you snap the necks of chickens in a past life? As for the general point, I blame word processors. I wrote my earlier books on a Brother golfball typewriter where you saw each page and it was a bother to correct/erase anything. Then the PC came along and I could no longer see that paragraphs had become like vast cliffs of words until I printed them out an edited them with a pen. Then agents/publishers went in for the multi-volume malarkey thereby encouraging length. Anyway, Selina, as for literary biographies, try Joseph Frank's FIVE volume life of Dostoevsky published by Princeton UP. I suppose FD lent himself to that approach since his working notebooks are sometimes longer than the long novels. I ploughed through this once- and indeed spent many happy evenings at Stanford discussing it with old Frank- in order to write a few pages on The Possessed in Earthly Powers. God, this introspective mood is catching!

  6. The thing is, Captain, paperbacks shouldn't have plates in - not in clumps anyway. Even the better class of perfect bound paperback (i.e. American) can't stand the strain.
    And by the way Welsh Jacobite - what's that in English? Looks good...

  7. The Welsh JacobiteApril 02, 2008 2:45 pm

    Apologies - the Greek text looked all right in the preview, but not in reality (a lesson for life??):

    mega biblion mega kakon

  8. Very true, Welsh, very true...

  9. I come to defend N. John ("Jack") Hall -- I studied biography with him in an NEH seminar some years back. He has a theory of biography which is this: He doesn't believe in putting forth a thesis and then shaping everything to fit it. He wants to get out of the way of the life, by simply giving it all to you -- the reader -- and letting you decide. Hence, his long Trollope & Beerbohm biographies.

    We read a lot of great bios during that seminar, and I've come to see how right Jack was. The thin volumes ("Eminent Victorians" by Lytton Strachey comes to mind) often had an agenda beyond recounting the life.

    BTW, Nige, absolutely the best biography of an artist I have EVER read (and this wasn't in Hall's seminar) was Jean Renoir's memoir of his father. I recommend it to everyone. It's a first-rate book and you even get Auguste Renoir's wife's recipe for stewed chicken (which I've made -- it's delish).

  10. captainb, any mention of the Russian classics gives me the runs. In my misspent youth I once tried to count the family names of the characters (the Russian method of naming offspring being unique) in Karamazov, then deducting them from the total. I gave up after three hours, but by then had a reasonable sample
    "Take out the charachters names from any Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Turgenev novel and the story`s only half as long as you think."

    I migrated to Sholokov, not as many names and the trilogy`s a cracking good read.
    I understand that descendants of Tolstoy now run Ikea`s naming committee.

  11. I've just gotten my hands on The path between the seas, by David Mccullough. It is the story of the building of the Panama Canal between 1870 and 1914. A well written but heavy book. Where just holding the book open for a length of time, your fingers will seize. This may be a reaction to age, but it is a paperback, and should be easier, physically. But you cannot, as with a hardback, cup the thing in the palm of the hand.

    Horace, held, brevity was the thing.

  12. I must disagree with Malty re Sholokov. The first volume "And Quiet Flows the Don" is OK but it was alleged that he stole the manuscript during the upheaval of the civil war. The following two volumes are turgid rubbish and written in a totaly different style which tends to confirm the allegation of theft.

  13. All of this twitter about big books had me wandering among our shelves, micrometer in hand, and I came across a long forgotten jewel of a biog, Nancy Mitfords Louis the umpteenth. 240 pages and although written in pure toffesque, a beacon of brevity.
    PS did I really spell Kharakters like that.

  14. The soul of WIT is brevity. Biographies not written by wits such as Mitford are bound to be different. At least, if the subject lived long or accomplished much.

    Hub and I are enjoying David McCullough right now in visual form: Watching "John Adams" on HBO. This is absolutely the first time I've been able to stand Laura Linney, but Paul Giamatti is ever a joy.